Books / Reviews

Inner-city life, and the banal mystery that is other people

by Matt Kamen

Special To The Japan Times

Beautifully banal. Perhaps not the most positive-sounding turn of phrase, but the one that best summarizes the appeal of Shuichi Yoshida’s interwoven narrative of five young adults and their struggles living in an overcrowded Tokyo apartment.

Parade, by Shuichi Yoshida, Translated by Philip Gabriel.
Vintage Books, Fiction.

Ryosuke Sugimoto is 21, finishing college and sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend. Mirai Soma, 24, splits her time unequally between frustrated artistic ambitions, running an imported-goods boutique and drinking her way around the trendiest gay bars. At 23, beautiful Kotomi Okochi is wasting her life sitting by the phone, waiting for a call from her pseudo-boyfriend and ignoring her clear symptoms of depression. Naoki Ihara, approaching 30, is the closest to a real adult, finally gaining some traction in his filmmaking career but is still in a weirdly codependent relationship with his ex-girlfriend.

Satoru Kokubo is the newest person to enter the apartment, an 18-year-old male prostitute trading out his youth and body for an easy if temporary fortune. Yet as suspicion mounts over strange occurrences in the apartment next door — possibly being used as a brothel, possibly something more sinister — and tension in the neighborhood rises in the wake of a string of attacks on women, the group find their collective life taking a much darker turn.

For their close proximity, they could as well be strangers. The emotional distance between them, even the core quartet prior to Satoru’s arrival, is striking: a microcosm of society locked in a tiny flat, no one ever really connecting with anyone else. They’re friends by circumstance, rather than affection.

Ultimately, this is a novel about detachment, both from oneself and those around you. Each of the housemates is deeply flawed, most are in need of outside support, but all find it easier to simply maintain the status quo than to actually open up to each other. Satoru, as the outsider, is the only one to call the others out on their behavior, fulfilling the traditional role of the jester and speaking truth to their power.

Yoshida’s use of a shifting narrator, cycling in turn through his five protagonists, reinforces the distance between them, revealing the secret thoughts of each as they evaluate the others. How they see themselves is contrasted against how the others see them, such as Ryosuke’s almost derisory view of Kotomi’s lifestyle poisoning the reader against her, until being softened by her own perspective. That we can be made to simultaneously feel empathy and loathing for each character is a testament to the author’s skill.

Most of the five sections are split into very brief chapters, each a first-person vignette of the current protagonist. Although not explicitly presented as such, the effect is much like reading diary entries, with some continuing long-running thoughts or adding to the ongoing events of the novel. Others add little to the overall story, but provide considerable, often shocking insight to the personalities at work. Some of the most disturbing moments come in Mirai’s focus, where we learn she keeps an old VHS tape of rape scenes from famous movies, and the blunt, almost callous recollection of the sudden death of an old friend. Yoshida gives distinctive voice to each of his “heroes,” while grounding them all in the same kind of modern malaise and lack of identity that many will find relatable.

In strange contrast, “Parade” is also staggeringly funny in places, albeit darkly so, and in a manner closer to the “show about nothing” formula of “Seinfeld” than an outright comedy. The common interactions between the players are conveyed with such dry wit and meticulous staging that you can easily imagine them being played out in front of an audience. Discussions on such mundane topics as television celebrities, preferred brands of fast food or favorite beers form most of the inhabitants’ conversations, being excuses to talk rather than reasons to. Other scenes, such as plans to go undercover to infiltrate their suspicious neighbors, are almost surreal.

“Parade” was originally published in Japan in 2002, and some of the references will feel anachronistic — Kotomi’s obsession with the game “Resident Evil 2,” for instance, or situations that would now be easily solved with a smartphone. Viewed as a contemporary period piece, though, it’s a near-flawless snapshot of urban life at the turn of the millennium. “Parade” is a rare universal work, one that could be happening almost as easily in London, New York, Toronto or any of the world’s cramped cities where young people migrate to in pursuit of dreams.

Philip Gabriel’s translation is a joy, much like his work on many of Haruki Murakami’s novels. The tenor of Yoshida’s prose is fastidiously maintained and presented, the blend of emotional numbness and social discontent pouring from the page.

The conclusion comes rapidly, not through sudden twists, but because the subtlety with which the “main” plot — the nocturnal attacks — is developed is so masterful that the reveal is almost blindsiding. Yet it epitomizes one of the core lessons of the tale: Few people are as they seem, and we rarely know even those we’re closest to. A stunning example of modern literature that displays a deep understanding of the human condition.

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